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Is anxiety the cause of negative reactions to COVID vaccines?

It's called the Nocebo Effect.

ATLANTA — It’s not unusual to experience a mild reaction after a shot, but some aches and pains may be more about anxiety than the COVID-19 vaccine.

Reactions vary after a COVID shot. Some people feel nothing, others are a little sore, while still others complain of headaches and fatigue.

A new study suggests for some, an uncomfortable reaction may be brought on by negative expectations.

Scientists have dubbed it the Nocebo Effect.

During clinical trials, some patients were given the actual COVID vaccine while others were given a placebo. They didn’t know it at the time of the trial, but they were injected with a harmless substance that doesn’t include any ingredients of the vaccine.

According to a study by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Boston, about 1/3 of the placebo patients complained of adverse effects. They experienced issues like headache and fatigue after getting a shot, even though they received the placebo and not the actual COVID vaccine.

The Placebo Effect is when patients think they’re getting a beneficial drug instead of a placebo and start feeling better due to their expectations. The Nocebo Effect is a negative reaction due to negative expectations about a drug or vaccine.

Dr. Shanta Dube is with the Department of Public Health at Wingate University. She said patients are warned of potentially uncomfortable immune responses to the COVID-19 vaccine, and that can cause stress.

“They were expecting to get pain on their arm, or they're expecting that they're going to have a side effect,” said Dube. “Why would they say they had pain or headache if they didn't really get the vaccine? Well, that has to do with potentially the anxiety they may have felt.”

Dube said making patients aware of the impact of anxiety and helping them relax prior to a vaccine could help.

“Open deep breathing, maybe do some relaxation techniques, things to help calm them down so that they're not internalizing all this negative expectation,” said Dube.

The phenomenon isn’t new. Research shows there have been patients involved in clinical trials for the influenza vaccine who complained of uncomfortable side effects even though they received a placebo instead of the actual vaccine.




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